Those who can work and those who can't: How COVID could split Britain in two

A view shows a sign advising people to stay home, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Oldham, Britain, August 19, 2020. REUTERS/Molly Darlington
More than a third of people are not isolating at home when advised to, a survey has revealed (REUTERS/Molly Darlington)

Britain faces being divided in two by COVID of the 'haves' - those who can afford to stay at home and work - and the have nots - those who can't.

Professor Andrew Hayward, director of the University College London (UCL) Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), issued the stark warning of the social impact of COVID during a radio interview.

Prof Hayward said that a slight drop in coronavirus infection rates in England “probably relates to the lockdown measures”.

However, he told Times Radio: “My concern is that what we’ve really got going on here is we’ve more or less split the population in two – those who can afford to stay at home and work and those who can’t.

“I suspect what we’re really seeing is a very fast decline in those who are staying at home, and either a levelling off or potentially even a continuing increase in those who are continuing to work.”

Watch: Professor Hayward’s warning on new COVID strain

He said the national picture was also being impacted by the two different strains of the virus and added that “what concerns me” is there is more activity than in the first lockdown, with three times as many people now using the London Underground and twice as many people using cars and buses.

A new variant of the virus emerged in December and can be up to 70% more transmissable than the first strain experienced, and other variants originating in South Africa and now Brazil, have also caused alarm for authorities as the risk looms of them spreading across the UK.

Asked if further lockdown measures were necessary, Prof Hayward said: “I do”, adding it needed to be possible for “those people who can’t afford to work from home to work from home with the right financial packages to support that”.

A woman wearing a face mask as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, walks past closed shops in the City of London, on January 15, 2021, during the third coronavirus lockdown. - Britain's economy slumped 2.6 percent in November on coronavirus restrictions, official data showed January 15, 2021, stoking fears that the current virus lockdown could spark a double-dip recession. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)
Britain could be split into two halves - those who can afford to isolate and those who cannot - according to a leading epidemiologist (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP)

And commenting on the fact that nurseries and churches are still open, Prof Hayward said there “is a risk where wherever you bring people together” but said it was “probably okay” in large spacious venues with people “extremely socially distanced”.

A blog published on the British Medical Journal website has echoed Prof Hayward’s concerns.

It read: “Unlike hand-hygiene and social distancing, self-isolation requires support from others to be possible.

“This includes support from others in the community, in the form of shopping most obviously. It also requires material support in the form of an income and sufficient space.

“The lower adherence rates for self-isolation therefore suggest that the issues may have less to do with psychological motivation than with the availability of resources. This accords with data from the first “lockdown” showing that the most deprived were six times more likely to leave home and three times less likely to self-isolate, but that they had the same motivation as the most affluent to do so.”

The blog, penned by Stephen Reicher of the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews and John Drury of the School of Psychology, University of Sussex, suggested that not following the rules was likely to be more a matter of practicality - whether people were able to work at home or take time off and receive support - rather than whether or not they wanted to.

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What you can and can't do under current lockdown rules

Reicher and Drury referred to the fact that in places where support is given to self-isolate - as in New York, where people are provided with money, hotel accommodation, food, mental health support, and even pet care - compliance with the rules can be as high as 95%.

“All this goes to make a simple and obvious point,” the report read. “People get infected because they get exposed. And they are more likely to be exposed if they are structurally more vulnerable: living in crowded housing, not able to work from home, limited to public transport.

“This is true of young people and explains the increase in infections among the young when the first lockdown was eased. It also explains the outbreaks in student halls of residence where, characteristically, many live together in small shared units.”

A Test and Trace Payment Support Scheme which was launched in September and was due to end at the end of January has now been extended to the end of March in an effort to support lower income families in Britain who are forced to self-isolate.

The one-off payments of up to £500 are available to people on certain benefits who will see their income drop as a result of having to stay at home.

Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown